- Rated R
All photos © Weinstein Co.
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
uentin Tarantino doesn’t make very many films, so when he does release a new one, it’s always met with the same kind of crazed excitement usually reserved for big event movies. His latest feature, “Django Unchained,” marks a few firsts for the director – including the first film not produced by Lawrence Bender (if you don’t count “Grindhouse”) and the first film not edited by longtime collaborator Sally Menke (who unfortunately passed away in 2010) – and though it’s hard to say how much of an effect that had on the finished product, it’s easily one of his weaker movies. Though “Django Unchained” is propped up by a pair of fantastic performances and filled with plenty of classic Tarantino moments, it's hard not to feel a little disappointed, because it simply doesn’t live up to the high standards set by his previous films.
Set two years before the start of the Civil War, the story begins with dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) freeing a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) from captivity. Schultz is hunting the notorious Brittle brothers, and because Django is one of the few people who knows what they look like, Schultz makes him a deal: help him track down the brothers and kill them, and he’ll give him his freedom. The idea of being paid money to kill white folks is too good to pass up, so Django joins Schultz as his bounty hunting partner in crime, only to discover that he’s actually a bit of a natural. When Schultz learns that Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), is also enslaved, he agrees to help find her and buy her freedom, which takes them down to Mississippi, where they face off against a ruthless plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) that specializes in Mandingo fighting.
Quentin Tarantino has dabbled in just about every genre at this point in his career, so it’s only natural that he would try his hand at a Western, although “Django Unchained” is actually more of a genre mash-up between a spaghetti western and a blaxploitation film, with all the musical cues, whip pans and other stylistic flourishes that both genres are known for. Much like “Inglourious Basterds” in that it’s another revenge tale based somewhat in historical fact (although there are no real-life figures this time around), “Django Unchained” also reveals itself to be somewhat of a buddy comedy, at least in the first hour when Django and Dr. Schultz travel around the country collecting bounties. This is also when the movie is at its best, delivering some of the funniest material that Tarantino has ever written and anchored by yet another show-stopping performance from Christoph Waltz that rivals his Academy Award-winning turn as Col. Hans Landa.
However, once they arrive at Candie Land, the cleverly named plantation that’s home to Leonardo DiCaprio’s charming but ruthless villain, the movie starts to lose steam. Though DiCaprio is a lot of fun to watch in the role (relishing the chance to play the bad guy for once), and Samuel L. Jackson earns some laughs as Candie’s Uncle Tom-like house servant, it drags on for too long, and that’s coming from someone who usually welcomes Tarantino’s tendency towards excess. But the story is so simple that it’s almost unnecessarily long just for the sake of feeling epic, and it’s tonally uneven as well, due in part to a few scenes that stray close to parody and some cameos (from Franco Nero, Jonah Hill and Tarantino himself) that are too cheeky for their own good.
With that said, “Django Unchained” is still classic Tarantino through and through. It’s funny, bloody and filled with enough uses of the n-word to make Spike Lee’s head explode. Though he probably could have found someone better than Jamie Foxx for the title role (especially with rumors of Idris Elba and Michael K. Williams circling the part), the actor does a solid job playing Django, even if he fails to make him as memorable as Tarantino's more iconic protagonists. Of course, the same is true of the movie itself, because while "Django Unchained" is an excellent showpiece for the talents of Waltz and DiCaprio, when compared to the rest of his oeuvre, it’s definitely a slight misfire.